Till we have people who actually enjoy wine and revel in it, we will never have a wine culture
I WAS once advised by a very wise man—my age, height and description—that if you want to make something popular, try to conceal it. If you want to make it common, try and rarify it. And if you want to simply proliferate it, then outrightly ban it. Wise words indeed. It explains a lot—how strained supply, fictitious or genuine, can create unprecedented demand. While authorities busy themselves scripting more idiotic ways to curb alcohol consumption, pedlars are too busy supplying all sorts of exotic liquors and brews, and making more money than the GDP of a small nation.
Recently, I was invited to explain the general tax structure for imported wines to a group of expats, who are directly associated with bilateral trade and would love to see the drinks of their country find a market here. They all walked in smiling and radiating positivity. An hour later, they were holding their heads in disbelief. The system I had just explained to them was one that opposed alcohol in every possible way, with nothing conducive to conducting business here. Almost anything that goes wrong in our country is blamed either on our neighbours or on alcohol.
Even something as unrelated as World Yoga Day saw a nut demand prohibition of alcohol.
Let’s see what we are up against: high taxes, multi-point levies and duties, and long-drawn formalities like brand registration and sending samples for analyses. Then, one can expect systematic delays—thanks to the authorities—which attract a penalty that importers have to pay. In short, the powers that be try to control every aspect of alcohol—from receiving, stocking and storing to delivering and even consuming—where they see money can be extracted. If only they paid as much attention to the quality of the produce that they let pass, we would have lesser instances of people dying every year through consumption of spurious alcohol and such.
And it’s not just for imported alcohol, local winemakers don’t have it any easier either. They pay heftier amounts to acquire rights to sell their wines in various states. And each state has laws more ridiculous than the next. In Rajasthan, you can’t change the alcohol percentage or vintage variation in the current year. Tamil Nadu requires that local wines be made in the state—when was the last time they checked their average temperature? Many require you to list the ingredients and also an expiry date. Maharashtra taxes Karnataka wines heavily and Karnataka retaliates similarly. It’s a pity because these are the only two states that make wine actively. New Delhi has such high label registration fees that only God knows what local industry they are protecting, for, last I checked, Delhi produces no alcohol whatsoever. Again, in Rajasthan, a woman can’t be depicted on the label—no face, body part or even a silhouette—for that, too, is illegal. So artistic renditions have to be toned down in the name of censorship. It makes one wonder are we truly in the 21st century?
It shouldn’t have been so difficult. We could have simply looked at how other countries, from Argentina to Australia, handle all this and evolved our own plan. Instead, we appointed paper-pushing myopic cronies, who can’t think beyond personal gains. Apart from them, we have appointed big winemakers to shape the rules, who have made suggestions to tilt the system in their favour.
That is exactly what happened in the spirits and beer industry, and even today small brands struggle to find shelf space. The thing is, till we have people who actually enjoy wine, revel in it, don’t drink for the sake of intoxication and, most importantly, aren’t zealot teetotallers who judge and police, we’ll never have a wine culture. And till that happens, we’ll keep inventing new and even more archaic rules to restrict alcohol. And with each new rule, people will find a new way to get their hands on the good stuff. Incredible no? This is India.
The writer is a sommelier